The great elephant debate: A lesson in why you should leave ivory alone
What you need to know:
- The barbs came early from conservationists, with my friend, elephant safety campaigner Paula Kahumbu, advising me to find a lake and take a swim for daring to suggest that tusks should be sold.
- A devotee of the church of free enterprise, Kwame is one of those fellows who think that things like national parks and the management of elephants should be left to the only group that can run them efficiently and profitably — business people.
- And that is where Kenya never ceases to amaze. First, as the comments on the burning versus selling tusks showed, on most things, Kenyans are flexible and willing to explore alternative ideas.
I committed a cardinal conservation sin on this page on March 4. I touched the wrong part of an elephant — its tusks.
As a result, on the afternoon of Saturday, April 25, I and a few other offenders are going to Brookhouse School to be hauled over the coals by conservationists in a debate about elephants and cast away in the nearby Nairobi National Park when they are done with us.
Like all trips that eventually take us to hell, it started innocently on that March day with a column titled, “Don’t burn tusks; sell them cheaply to beat poachers and save elephants”.
The column reported a conversation I had a with a friend who thought that as someone who comes from a wealthy business background, President Uhuru Kenyatta should not have set fire to a pile of elephant tusks a few days earlier. Kenya should have sold the tusks and recovered something. Like most other countries, Kenya is a place where it is politics that gets people all excited.
Conservation and elephants are marginal issues for the devoted and they are consigned to the ghettoes inside newspapers.
The barbs came early from conservationists, with my friend, elephant safety campaigner Paula Kahumbu, advising me to find a lake and take a swim for daring to suggest that tusks should be sold. It could only encourage, not discourage, poaching she argued.
Then I noticed that on Twitter, there was unusually high interest in the column, with a record number of comments. But what really surprised me was that most of the comments were strongly in support of selling tusks and saw the burning as a waste.
The next day when I checked on the Nation website, my heart skipped a beat. The column was the second most commented on and it was among the most popular articles on the site. A sex scandal involving a minister and his driver’s wife, that I could understand, but I really did not expect that a conservation story would get that much attention.
When Paula called to suggest that we have a debate, if I were a wiser man, I would have said no. The column was playing devil’s advocate, mostly, but a debate in which we would have to argue that we are doing conservation all wrong is another issue.
However, during our conversation we realised that there had never been a public debate examining the range of issues around protecting elephants. The poachers did their work secretly in the dark and the conservationists held conferences and preached to the converted.
And thus we agreed on the Saturday debate. For Paula, the job of finding debaters was easy. However, where would I find anyone crazy enough to argue for a market-based approach to conservation? Our side got lucky, though.
We landed on Kwame Owino, the CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and a columnist with the Nation. I am worried, though, that Kwame might get us further into trouble, but he has promised to behave. A devotee of the church of free enterprise, Kwame is one of those fellows who think that things like national parks and the management of elephants should be left to the only group that can run them efficiently and profitably — business people.
However, we also needed to find folks who had actually soiled their hands on these issues. Lo and behold, we found Clara Wanjiku, who today works on social enterprise. Clara’s background is in “market-based solutions for conservation” and she has done things like selling carbon credits.
When you read about things like carbon credits, you never really expect that there is a young woman from your village who has sold them. And that is where Kenya never ceases to amaze. First, as the comments on the burning versus selling tusks showed, on most things, Kenyans are flexible and willing to explore alternative ideas. But when it comes to their politics, it is angry and extreme.
Secondly, the talents of the people you bump into on the streets are amazing… but you would never know until you ask.
Thirdly, for a country in which wildlife tourism has been so crucial, it is puzzling that there is hardly any dispassionate policy canvassing around it.
For all these reasons, we are glad to put our necks on the line in the debate. Hopefully, a new “elephant order” shall emerge. If not, it will be equally satisfying to reaffirm the old one.
See you on Saturday.
The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]